The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity. . . . It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; the obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets, it goes around. . . . A road, on the other hand, even the most primitive road, embodies a resistance against the landscape. Its wish is to avoid contact with the landscape; it seeks so far as possible to go over the country, rather than through it. . . . It is destructive, seeking to remove or destroy all obstacles in its way.
(Wendell Berry, from "A Native Hill," in The Long-Legged House)
As a child one pleasure of staying with my then seventy-something grandmother was the walks we took. She did not drive, had never driven, and so other than being taken places by my mother, walked wherever she went. It was enough for her. She had no desire to travel. She'd don her bonnet, which I assumed was just a necessary accessory for women her age going outdoors, and off we'd go, invariably walking paths through the woods, by the creek, circumventing the Southern Railway train tracks, and rarely, if ever, taking to an actual road.
We'd visit friends, unannounced, sometimes ailing, and my grandmother would take them some food, maybe a homemade pie. We'd stop in on an old cemetery, the forest overtaking it, gravestones askew from tree roots pushing them up. She'd clear away vines that covered stones, brush away the dirt, stand with her hands on her hips and shake her head, obviously disgusted at the neglect of the place. She cautioned us not to walk on the graves. We played quietly, spoke in hushed tones. We'd walk home, through a wild strawberry patch, where we'd help ourselves. She'd make a basket from the folds of her skirt, carrying berries back with us. We'd stop off by the creek that pooled under the railway bridge, and she'd let us wade in the water there. We were in no hurry.
Today, I'm in no hurry. We drove from Blowing Rock to Linville, to Grandfather Mountain, planning to plod along on the Black Rock Nature Trail. I expected clouds and rain today, which may yet come, but for now it is fair and sunny, the air crisp, the color still in the trees, and we are on the move.
Coming to the trailhead, we found it closed, likely due to possible ice, so we drove up the mountain, walking in bitter cold out and across the "swinging" bridge, noting the snow-covered trees and carefully picking our way farther across the rocks for a better view. Traveling back, up the Blue Ridge Parkway this time, we pointed to the trail looping under the Lynn Cove Viaduct, as it was one we had hiked before. Continuing, we passed Julian Price Lake, also remembering a hike there many years ago with young children in tow.
This too is a "ritual of familiarity," something my older children still love, that sense that we have been here before and will be here again. Maybe it's the pleasure of seeing things that do not change much when so much else can change. Or maybe it's just the softness of what you pass out here: rock outcroppings worn down by winds, the forest bed laden with fallen leaves, trees asymmetrical, shaped by wind. Or maybe it's just the refreshing sense that unlike most days of the week, we are not trying to get somewhere but are contented to just be somewhere. We are in no hurry.
Scripture nowhere makes a tidy distinction between a "road" and a "path," as does Wendell Berry. But the word "road" is rarely used metaphorically as is "path," but descriptively. In Psalm 16:11 the Psalmist says "You have made known to me the path of life," and in 119:105 he refers to the "word" being a "light to my path." There is a "path of the wicked" (Pr. 4:14) and a "path of the righteous," and we are told to "ponder the path of your feet; then all of your ways will be sure" (Pr. 4:26). Roads, on the other hand, are simply that: a way from one place to another. The destination is the point of a road; the path is its own point.
It'd be unfair to force the good/evil distinction on these journeys, as in road-bad and path-good. Coming in last night, in the dark, we skirted the traffic and lights of Boone by traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway for some 12 or so miles. The Parkway is a blend of road and path, in places burrowing through the mountain, an obstacle to its travel, in others, living with and working with the mountain. Given time, even its roughness born of demolition, concrete, and asphalt is assuaged; the trees felled return, moss grows on rocks, the edges of the road soften with grass, and the road itself seems in its curves little more than a wide, paved path, a road which has forgotten it is a road. In the darkness, snow swirling in our headlights, I imagine the animals in the forest watching us, waiting for our passing so that they can stand down, reclaim their land, in the wee hours of the night even repossess their path.
Life before God ought to be, as Eugene Peterson has said, a "long obedience in the same direction." Both path and road are headed somewhere, have a destination, a direction, but the metaphor of the path seems to better describe the way that we tread. There are rituals of familiarity, both those disciplines of the faithful like worship, scripture, and prayer, as well as individual habits that come with knowledge of the place in which we find ourselves. When an old worry crops up, for example, we may habitually remind ourselves of certain promises God has made, promises we have claimed in the past, trodding a familiar path and safely skirting an obstacle we have passed before.
At some point we realize, as did Brother Lawrence, that the path is Jesus, that He is "the Way" as well as the destination. To abide in Him is to walk in the path of righteousness. His path becomes the most natural thing in the world, "the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place," the bending of our will to His.
It's not enough to be out walking. It's not enough to have a destination. We're told to "ponder our path" so that our "ways will be sure" (Pr. 4:26). That means the only way to get there sooner is to watch our step, to notice where we are, to consider how best to live in this moment.
Even in Autumn, when leaves are falling and trees become bare, when sorrow may come unbidden, we can stop and ponder our path, even then adapting to the place God has taken us. As Robert Frost says in his late Autumn poem, "My November Guest," where Sorrow is personified and addressed:
Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.
Take a path, not a road, next time you're out walking. Ponder what you see. See in it a life lived unto God, one that "obeys the natural contours" of a landscape of His design. You'll get where you're going. . . His way. My grandmother taught me that.